Jim Gaffigan’s Time Is Now: The Comic on His New Show, Bill Cosby’s Fall, and Donald Trump
The journeyman comedian opens up over a burger about his long road to TV stardom on ‘The Jim Gaffigan Show,’ the 2016 presidential election, and the plight of the ‘clean’ comic.
When our burgers arrive, Jim Gaffigan’s jaw nearly drops to the floor. He stares down at the juicy 8 oz. patty smothered in cheddar cheese and the side of sliced pickles—both custom mods—and then shoots me a look of childlike wonder.
“Is there anything better than a burger? I mean… is there anything?”
The 49-year-old journeyman comedian has reached a pivotal crossroads in his professional career. He’s about to embark on a massive headlining comedy tour, replete with a gigantic souped-up tour bus bearing an image of him dressed as the Statue of Liberty, and a winter gig at Madison Square Garden—hallowed ground reserved for the biggest names in comedy, like Louis C.K. and Kevin Hart. But even bigger than that, The Jim Gaffigan Show, which he co-created, executive produces (along with his wife, Jeannie), writes, and stars in, will debut July 15 on TV Land.
On the show bearing his name, Gaffigan plays… Jim Gaffigan, a shlubby stand-up comedian crammed into a New York City apartment with his out-of-his-league wife, Jeannie (Ashley Williams), and their five young children, and is accompanied on his misadventures by his gay representative (Michael Ian Black) and his best pal (Adam Goldberg). It’s a fictionalized account of his life—he’s also a father to five young kids in a cramped NYC apartment—that sees the average joe navigate such treacherous terrain as vasectomies, religion, and a particularly unfortunate episode involving one of his children drawing a picture of daddy’s penis at school. With its humorous exploration of fatherhood spliced with keen observational comedy, the show has drawn comparisons to FX’s Louie, another series centered on a paunchy, balding, middle-aged stand-up vet, and one that propelled Louis C.K. to superstar status.
“Because we’re both good-lookin’ guys?” asks Gaffigan of the comparisons. “I’ve heard that it’s ‘a happy Louie.’ With Louie, it’s like you’re in an independent film. But Jeannie and I are just trying to make a show we’re happy to watch. We’re in this golden age of dramas, and with that and reality TV, the cadence of sitcoms seems inauthentic. So there’s time for a single-camera show that’s humorous, but based in reality.”
The Jim Gaffigan Show is, as its title suggests, a monument to Gaffigan—a lifelong comedian who’s amassed a large following (2.4 million Twitter followers, natch) with his wry takes on food and fatherhood. On his recent bestselling comedy album, Obsessed, the comic mocked the American South for their overindulgences—fried chicken and waffles for breakfast, for one—before quipping, “The South will never rise again because they don’t have the energy.”
And because Gaffigan is a “clean” comic, he also follows in the footsteps of Bill Cosby. In their recent review of the show, The New York Times wrote that the series “owes a debt” to The Cosby Show. Of course, Gaffigan is by all accounts an exceedingly decent human being—unlike the aforementioned probable serial rapist.
“With Cosby, we just turned a blind eye to it,” Gaffigan says of the culture. “Because we knew about it in the ‘80s, didn’t we? I wouldn’t be shocked if we found out he murdered somebody at this point. The thing about Cosby I don’t like is, obviously he’s a comedy icon, but I don’t like that he’s a clean comic. He’s giving us a bad name!” He pauses. “I think as a culture, we’re in shock.”
Comparisons aside, when it comes to his new show, Gaffigan’s biggest worry seems to be overcoming audience’s preconceived notions of TV Land—a network steeped in nostalgia that’s now making a concerted effort to appeal to the younger demo, according to its execs (reruns will air on the other Viacom property, Comedy Central). To assuage people’s fears, Gaffigan chose to release one of the show’s episodes online in advance of its premiere. It concerns the comic being outed as a Catholic, which sparks a media frenzy with left and right-wing media outlets taking aim at the poor bastard, including Jon Stewart, Keith Olbermann, Nancy Grace, and Glenn Beck. And it’s hilarious.
“I intentionally released it early because I wanted people to know that, just because I’m a clean comedian with five kids and the show’s on TV Land, this is not going to be Hot in Cleveland—not that there’s anything wrong with Hot in Cleveland,” he says with a chuckle.
CNN, MSNBC, and the other major networks played ball, but one network didn’t have a sense of humor about the bit. “Bill O’Reilly and Greta wanted to do it, but Fox News’ higher-ups were like, ‘You’re going to make fun of us!’ and it’s not making fun of anyone in particular. I think they thought I was going to make fun of them, so they were reluctant.”
Gaffigan’s road to comedy wasn’t a direct one. He was raised in the small town of Chesterton, Indiana (population: 13,000). His father was a banker, and the first member of the family to attend college, so he eventually followed in Dad’s footsteps, graduating from Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business in 1988. Two years later, he moved to New York to work in the ad biz, but moonlighted at comedy clubs, and soon realized he’d found his calling.
He says he watched SNL growing up in Indiana and cites David Letterman and Bill Murray as comedy influences, as well as Richard Pryor, whom he considers the greatest stand-up ever.
“I mean, no one is Pryor,” he says. “What Pryor did is insane. It would be the equivalent of Caitlyn Jenner saying, Now I’m doin’ stand-up! and she kills it.”
As for choosing his own stand-up comedy focus, which mainly involves gluttonous foods like donuts, cinnamon rolls, and Hot Pockets, Gaffigan says it was “immediately universal.”
“You didn’t have to set it up,” says Gaffigan. “You go through different, odd spaces, and bouts with being outlandish. People like the preacher, the social satirist, but everyone likes food.”
“And I’m only clean ‘cause Jesus told me to be clean,” he jokes, with a laugh. “You develop this voice, this point of view, over years. I was dirtier and you’re always trying to push the envelope, but it’s not as if I’m censoring myself. And the topic matter I’m discussing—it’s not necessary to say fuck if you’re talking about cinnamon rolls. If anything, that’s being uncreative. I fuckin’ love cinnamon rolls!”
In 1999, after a well-received set on The Late Show with David Letterman, his comedy idol hired him to a production deal with his company Worldwide Pants. The result was Welcome to New York, a CBS sitcom starring Gaffigan as a small town Indiana fella who moves to New York to be a weatherman, and who clashes with his brassy producer, played by Christine Baranski. The prevailing sentiment was that while the series had Gaffigan in the starring role, it didn’t necessarily reflect his comedic sensibilities and was canceled after 13 episodes.
“It was definitely a shot, but I don’t think I had the maturity to take the authority I should have,” Gaffigan says. “Everyone looks at Roseanne—and some of it was sexism—as this woman ‘asserting herself,’ but that’s why that show was so damn good.”
I mention that “Welcome to New York” is now not only the title of a popular Taylor Swift song, but one that is constantly played in New York City cabs thanks to the pop diva’s dubious Big Apple ambassadorship.
“She stole it from me, essentially. Whore,” jokes Gaffigan in his trademark squawk. “And I wasn’t invited to her Fourth of July birthday party! Whore.”
Supporting parts on sitcoms The Ellen Show, That ‘70s Show, and My Boys followed, but failed to satisfy the popular stand-up comic.
“The long journey in this is that I’d come to the conclusion that I didn’t think television was that rewarding,” he say. “When you walk onto a that That ‘70s Show set to deliver a line, you’re not acting—you’re delivering a line. You’re waiting for the audience to acknowledge Ashton Kutcher, and then you deliver your line, and people are still looking at Ashton.” Gaffigan’s also popped up a wide variety of films, ranging from Super Troopers and Stranger Than Fiction to Away We Go, displaying a genial onscreen presence and knack for tragicomedy. One short film he starred in became particularly notorious: Howard Cantour.com. It was later discovered that its director, Shia LaBeouf, had plagiarized the work from Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel Justin M. Damiano, leading to a bizarre—and protracted—apology tour courtesy of the Transformers star.
“Do you think he knew that I was being co-opted?” Gaffigan asks me. “What’s so amazing about that is [co-star] Tom Lennon and I were sending messages back and forth going, ‘What the hell is going on? What is this?’ There’s no greater sin in the stand-up world than thievery. Joe Rogan is our Comedy Cop. So you do not want to be associated with thievery. But for me, that was just so surreal. I didn’t know the world of graphic novels. And Shia was a really nice guy and a delight to work with, but I don’t have any hard feelings about it because I don’t think people think I had anything to do with it.” He adds, “I know plagiarism is plagiarism, but was there also some of that, ‘This is America, let’s get him!’ thing going on? I don’t know.”
After we’ve inhaled our burgers (and fries), the talk shifts to political correctness in comedy. Recently, the only comic cleaner than Gaffigan, Jerry Seinfeld, railed against PC culture, pegging it as the reason he no longer performs at colleges. Contemporaries like Chris Rock and Louis C.K. have spoken out against it as well, and the scrutiny has gotten so severe that even “it girl” Amy Schumer’s come under fire of late for off-color jokes she told years ago.
“Is Amy Schumer a racist? Obviously not. Is Daniel Rosh a proponent of rape? No. There’s this sense—and I blame the British, because it’s their tabloid culture—of, ‘Oh, you put yourself out there, so it’s fair game!’” says Gaffigan.
One thing he is enjoying is the 2016 presidential race, which is already shaping up to be quite the sideshow—thanks in no small part to Donald Trump. “It’s going to be crazy,” he says. “The Trump thing is like a summer mini-series. It’s got like a six or eight-week run. And if Hillary [Clinton] picked Elizabeth Warren as her VP, this thing would be over. It would rally the base and rally the moderates.” He pauses, and flashes a big ol’ smile. “But hey, I love a fight.”